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Boeing now says 737 Max pilots need simulator time

The recommendation is a reversal from the company's previous position that existing 737 crews needed only iPad-based training to fly the plane.

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Boeing has suggested that pilots get simulator experience before flying the 737 Max.

Kent German/CNET

Boeing nullified a big original selling point of its troubled 737 Max airliner on Tuesday, recommending that pilots receive simulator training before the plane can return to service. The Max is now in the 10th month of a global grounding after two crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed 346 people

Though aviation safety agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration will ultimately determine whether simulator training is needed, it's likely that regulators around the world will require it. Simulator sessions will require extra time and expense for airlines struggling to get their Max fleets back in the air.

Interim Boeing CEO Greg Smith said In a statement that the new recommendation comes after it evaluated its own simulator tests after making changes to the aircraft's systems. Smith assumed the top role after CES Dennis Muilenburg was fired by the company's board of directors two weeks ago.

"Safety is Boeing's top priority," Smith said. "Public, customer and stakeholder confidence in the 737 MAX is critically important to us, and with that focus, Boeing has decided to recommend MAX simulator training combined with computer-based training."

Because the 737 Max has essentially the same fuselage design that all versions of the 737s have used since 1967, Boeing and the FAA initially agreed that flight crews certified on earlier 737s wouldn't need simulator time. Instead, to save both training costs and time, they learned about the differences the Max brought through an hour's worth of iPad-based training.

But that iPad session gave scant mention to MCAS, the flight control system blamed for the crashes. Though Boeing has made several software changes to MCAS over the past year, which the simulator sessions will cover, no test flight with the FAA has yet been scheduled making it unclear when the Max will carry passengers again.